Composing Music for Devised Theatre

Many years ago (we’re talking pre-Facebook), I led the creation process of a piece called Goddess. It was a movement-based piece with very little text and so I felt like we needed to underscore most of the play. The only person I knew who could cope with the chaotic devising process and create something appropriate was my friend who goes by the name of HW Tamplin, who was based in Madrid. There was no Dropbox then, and I still had dial-up, so downloading the music was a long process. Still, we did it. HW also wrote some thoughts down about the process, back in 2006 and I have dug them out. Here they are. (You can find the link to the music at the end of this post.)

Composing the music for Goddess has been a great personal challenge: to convey the character of the myths’ protagonists, as I understood them, surrounded by the aura of an epoch, a different time, a world of mortals and Gods, of Goddesses; to find the balance between the physical work on stage and the sounds. Furthermore, with actors devising the play in another land – I was mortal, they were Gods.

Even before I read the first draft of the script I received an e-mail from Pilar saying “I hear lots of wind in this play”. Now that was a start of sorts, it led me to compose the track suitable-named Goddess1 without even knowing whether it would fit anywhere in the final play. This track is based on floaty synth-pad sounds, some string-based, some wind-based, with an improvised harmonic structure. The result was quite abstract and so I added a layer of a tuned percussive sound (similar to a vibraphone) that hinted towards a melody of some kind, but kept the track’s sort-of-abstract nature and feel. The track was then shelved for possible future use.

Having read the first draft of the play, I understood that each character in each myth would have to “carry” their own distinctive sound with them, their trademark, their instrument, their melody. For certain scenes, I could also hear choirs in my head, the voices of the Gods, Hera enraged, Hades ruling the Underworld, Narcissus’ fate. And now, the scenes, and their characters:

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAEros, the God of love, playful, is seen practicing with his bow and arrow, decided, self-assured, a definite, clear-cut melody in mind for him. Psyche, a mortal, sacrificed on top of a mountain for her beauty, emotional, at a loss to understand her fate, adrift…wind, abstract…that was it! Finally Goddess1 had a meaning! – it would become the music for the “flying” scene: Eros, now vulnerable, in love with Psyche, flying her away to their home. And so, I had hints of a melody for Eros, and a definite melancholy sound for Psyche. Three further tracks were required for this scene, the introductory Eros track (the moment to show-off his “melody”), the mountain track, and the final track, where Eros discovers Psyche trying to see his face. First to come to reality was the mountain track. It had to be a piece in crescendo to go with the voices of Eros and Psyche mounting to a climax (Eros hitting himself with an arrow), and so it starts with Psyche’s flute-like sound in a slow melody that is more distinct than its abstract form in the flying scene, and then Eros’ melody appears backed with a solo cello, different woodwind, brass and string instruments appear in turn, growing to a sudden dramatic end, with the sound of an arrow, “wooshing” through the air, a thump and the crying voice of the Gods (or are they seagulls!!). The final track to this scene was to become an exercise in sound editing and production, with no further composition (as Pilar put it, Goddess Revamped), only changing some of the content in Goddess1 into a short angry-sounding piece to go along with Eros’ anger, disillusion, a God in pain due his love’s betrayal. The starting track, Eros’ bravado so clear-cut in my mind, his melody already in existence, and yet such a pain to come up with the accompaniment; it took what seemed like years to become what it eventually became. Having arrived at a dead-end with what I had come up with, it wasn’t until after I scrapped the work completely, that it rapidly flourished in the jazzy form it now has, cool, self-assured, arrows flying all over the place, the perfect start for the play, the fun to counterbalance the underlying drama in the play.

echoEcho and Narcissus, what an unlikely pair!…Of course, Echo cannot have a melody of her own, her own voice cruelly taken away by Hera in the first part of this scene, but she has the ability to repeat what has just been said, perfectly, beautifully…musically inspiring. But let’s start with Hera, Goddess of Goddesses, enraged at Echo’s treachery, persecutes her with great might, pushes, shoves her, steals her voice, point blank deprivation…the thud of tuned timpani, a majestic organ, chaotic percussion, a choir of voices, the voice of the Goddess, precede the upbeat minimalist piano phrase that is Echo fleeing, the squeals as her voice is torn away. Hera, triumphant, fades away leaving Echo in silence. Then, in true transnational collaboration, my own little piece of stage devising – Echo and Narcissus MUST dance a waltz, a sweet piece of music to show Echo’s ability at repetition – an unforeseen circumstance for the playwrights, who had to re-envisage this part of the play. Narcissus’ deep low-pitch voice, a playful bassoon, mimicked by Echo’s high-pitched voice, initially thought for a clarinet, finally a flute, waltz away backed by the ever-dear sound of plucked and bow strings, how beautiful, how dreamy, how untrue, it was all in Echo’s imagination!!!…Then the crude reality of which Echo is mere spectator: Narcissus, in a tour de force with his own existence mirrored in the pool, the sound of water now echoing his now eerie melody, beckoning, a hint of voices, the sounds of fate, ‘twas written in the stars, Echo cries, Narcissus gives in…

underworldAnd now Persephone and the Underworld scene…tricky, especially as this part of the play was changed up to and including the performance; however, most of my initial musical ideas could be used as originally planned…Hades, lord of the Underworld, what a shady character, and Persephone, so easily drawn into his power play…a kidnap…the original idea with two high-pitched melodies, intertwined, fighting, screeching was scrapped because the results were too disturbing, and the strength of the physical piece it accompanied would have been lost, so we kept only the voice of Hades, dominating the scene with a single, slow, disturbing melody which worked perfectly…then, in comes death, destruction, Armageddon, the kidnap, distorted guitars, Hades’ melody double-speed, the luring voices, the lost souls, the Lord of the Underworld forces his love down with him, the sister’s nightmare, she falls, the lights red, flashing, the crash…they are in the Underworld, distortion, wind, water, dark sounds, confusion, an end or a beginning?…a brother, a sister, reunited, a waltz-like piece recapturing the melodies of all the characters in the previous dreams, Eros, Psyche, Narcissus and his Echo, washed away by synth-pads that lead to a happy ending…

The music for the curtain call at the end of the show was developed from the Eros piece at the beginning of the play using the same jazzy bass line at half the speed, and was originally envisaged as the music for the brother-sister scene. However, its circus-like nature, with its fast melody carried away by an accordion accompanied by variations on the melodies throughout the play, made it the perfect piece for a final piece, the curtain call, to remind us of Calderon de la Barca’s famous words, “For all life is a dream, and dreams themselves are only dreams.”

The music was composed using a stand-alone hardware sequencer, then the MIDI data was transferred to the computer in Gladiator Camp Studios, and the sounds arranged there for best results using sampled instruments and virtual synthesizers.

To listen to the music from Goddess, have a look at HW Tamplin’s Soundcloud profile



Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s